When you first start journaling, you may find that you feel extremely self-conscious. This is because journaling requires vulnerability, and there is a human tendency to protect yourself from being too genuine. In order to overcome that defensive behavior in your writing, one of the most important skills you’ll need to develop as a diary writer is vulnerability. It may sound silly, but vulnerability is something you have to practice to become good at it. And if you’re going to be truly vulnerable, you first need to feel safe and supported. As a diary writer, you’ll need to set up your journaling habit as a protected solo activity.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about protecting my journals and creating a safe space to facilitate vulnerability. With the notable exception of Harriet the Spy, I had no role model to follow, so I had to make several mistakes to learn these lessons. I was very public about my journaling growing up, and as a result of that openness, I believe now that the public display of my journaling negatively impacted my vulnerability. People have always been eager to read what I’ve written, and when I began to understand that my craft was mysterious and valuable, I lorded my journaling over people’s heads. I look back and realize that I was lucky—maybe too lucky—that my journals were never stolen when I took them to school with me. But there has always been tension between my identity as a diarist and a writer: why would I not want to share my craft, my epiphanies? Do I share these creations or do I hold my journals sacred, protecting them from any eyes but my own?
Because people wanted to read my personal thoughts, the possibility of even a potential future audience changed what I felt comfortable writing about, the depths that I felt I could expose. I know that this hindered my journaling craft. If I was certain that no eyes but mine would read my entries in the future, my journals would explode with all of the things that have gone unsaid: my true character, the power of my feelings, my deepest experiences. But because I sense that someone else may read my words, that vulnerability is tainted and becomes self-conscious. Who’s going to read this? I wonder, and my words are suddenly measured to accommodate them.
Your perceived audience makes a huge difference in how comfortable you feel when you journal, and if you have a difficult time being honest in your journal, this is probably the reason why. Whomever you sense reading over your shoulder will subconsciously determine the writing voice you adopt and even the memories and feelings you document. Sadly, we allow the fear of external eyes to temper our own honesty, and any hindrance to our vulnerability is going to negatively effect the benefits we want to see from our journaling practices.
For example, if you’re journaling for personal growth, you need to feel comfortable discussing your experiences with candor so that you can reflect honestly on your life. Similarly, if you’re journaling for therapy, you need to feel safe enough to open up about things that may cause you emotional upheaval. If at any point, however, you are worried about what a friend or family member will think about what you’ve written or if you feel anxious about the consequences of your honesty, you have not successfully protected your journaling craft from the influence of others.
There are a couple of things you can do to protect yourself and facilitate beneficial vulnerability. These are lessons I learned the hard way, advice I wish I’d heard when I started out, so take a good look at these as you start your own journaling practice.
First, I seriously urge you to make every effort to protect yourself from unwanted readers. Protecting yourself from unwanted readers mainly involves protecting other people from temptation. Just think about the way your own curiosity gets piqued. If your journal can be seen, it will garner some attention, so the journal that you’re currently writing in should not go with you to school or work, and it should never be left unaccompanied in public living spaces. Journals that you’ve completed should not be stored openly on shelves, and they should never be stored somewhere that you don’t live without proper protection.
Keeping these practical rules in mind, I believe that the most efficient way to protect yourself from unwanted readers is to talk about your expectations of privacy with the people in your life. This list should include the people you live with but can also include others that you deem appropriate, like a significant other or best friends. You may believe that your request for privacy is understood, but people are delightfully unpredictable, and if you never have a conversation, you cannot assume that you are on the same page.
For instance, right before my graduation a few months ago, my sister grew nostalgic and read some of the journals that I had left in my bedroom in Dallas. My reaction was intense: I felt violated, exposed, and betrayed, but I also felt that I couldn’t justify being angry with her because I never talked to her about respecting my privacy. I had left the journals unaccompanied for months on a shelf in my room—hardly private. It had never occurred to me to protect myself from my family’s curiosity and sentimentality, but my sister’s decision to read those journals—which felt harmless to her but was an invasion to me—showed me that I needed to be straightforward and consider more secure options for long-term storage.
I would also recommend protecting yourself from any readers. Period. I recently read a chapter on Sonya Tolstoy that talked about how she and her husband (Leo Tolstoy) had an open-diary policy for many years of their marriage. While there is something honorable about a couple that does not want to have any secrets, the animosity that the Tolstoys developed towards each other inside their diaries was unnerving, and it definitely serves as a word of warning to any of us who feel like sharing our journals can be used in place of open and honest conversation.
I promise you this: if you develop a habit of journaling, there will come a day when you believe that something you’ve written should be shared, and it will be easy for you to hand your journal over to someone. Don’t do it. You are your own therapist in your journal, so willingly sharing a journal is the equivalent of your therapist breaking your doctor-patient confidentiality. Be bold; do not get pressured into sharing your journals with others, even those that you’d like to be honest with. Know that if you do choose to entrust someone with your thoughts, sharing your journal entries is an extremely vulnerable experience, and it rarely goes the way you think it will.
I’ve had quite a bit of experience with sharing my journals, and even though it has never ended in disaster, I still wouldn’t recommend doing it. For example, my freshman-year boyfriend made me promise that I would let him read my journals before we graduated high school, and when senior year rolled around, he pestered me about honoring that promise until I finally caved. His reaction was not at all what I expected. I remember we sat in my car on the street in front of his house, and I watched him nonchalantly thumb through my most precious possessions. It was unnerving that exposing my deepest, darkest secrets—quite a few of them involving him—had absolutely no effect on him at all. And then, about a year later, I naively did the same thing with another ex-boyfriend: I let him read a few entries from the time that we were dating, and besides a mortifying moment when he glimpsed a trial of me trying on his last name as my signature, he thought it was “cool to see it from my perspective” and that was the extent of his response. What may have been revelatory, life-altering, and emotional for me was mild entertainment for them, and I was hurt by their reactions, a result of my own naiveté.
If you want to share what you’ve written, there are ways to do it that don’t involve handing over your journals. Here are a couple of suggestions.
1 | Have a conversation. If you have any hesitations or anxieties about openly discussing a topic with someone, you definitely shouldn’t let them read about it in your journal. Their reaction may prohibit you from being honest with yourself. If you do feel hesitant, reconsider if this a topic you should share with them at all.
2 | Redraft an important entry as a letter or a personal essay. Once you shift gears from journaling to creative writing, you are more likely to catch the moments where you have let your guard down too much, and you can craft an honest statement without exposing yourself.
3 | Finally, anyone interested in publishing their journals in their entirety should consider writing a memoir. Like the letter or personal essay, the creative expression of your memories and experiences can be rewarding and entertaining without jeopardizing the safety of your journaling space.
Journaling is a wholesome, life-giving, and rewarding activity if it is practiced with caution; but if it is done haphazardly, journaling can be detrimental to you, too. There is a reason why people have to learn how to be vulnerable: there is risk associated with vulnerability, and it can damage your relationships, reputation, and more. I hope that you don’t have to learn the lessons in this post the hard way, that you will never have to face pain, embarrassment, or negative consequences as a result of being honest with yourself. If you do protect your journals from others, however, you are taking an important first step in your journaling practice: strengthening your capacity for vulnerability and setting up a habit of stalwart protection so that you can continue to be honest and experimental and confident in your writing.